Playing it straight

“How do you do it? It must be so difficult and hard for you to hug, kiss and make love to a heterosexual on camera when you are not straight.” It’s 2006, and Brokeback Mountain – with its brave hetero leads ‘going gay’ for their art and tenderly portraying a homosexual relationship – is primed for an awards coup de gra. A giant leap for widespread acceptance of homosexuality? Not in the eyes of comic actor Jerome Cleary, who ironically posed the above question and who couldn’t help wondering one thing… What about all the ‘brave’ gay actors playing straight?

Queer characters have been coming out of the media woodworks with gay abandon in recent years – no television show is complete without a camp sidekick, no film can function without a prancing poof sprinkling the fairy dust. A recent survey by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation discovered 83 gay, lesbian and transgender characters present on television at this very moment. The days of sweeping homos under the carpet is over – they’re here, they’re queer, they’re ordering a light beer. They’re also, more often than not, portrayed by straight actors – from Tom Hanks in Philadelphia to Sean Penn in Milk.

When it comes to gay actors walking the straight and narrow, though, there’s been a media silence akin to crickets sullenly chirping. Where is Rock Hudson’s kudos for his convincing rendering of a straight man in Pillow Talk? Or Cynthia Nixon’s applause for throwing herself (often literally) into steamy hetero sex scenes for Sex and the City?

It’s a question that is – finally – beginning to tremble on certain media lips (ahem). The New York Times recently stated that “for most gay actors, Hollywood is not a warm and fuzzy episode of Will & Grace.” So that while being gay is becoming more acceptable on the other side of the pond, gay actors are still asked “wrenching questions” about their place in the world of entertainment.

Gay actors playing straight parts is, of course, not a new thing. Poofs have treaded the boards, thesping their hearts out to strains of Shakespeare since the dawn of entertainment – we’re looking at you Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Yet, somehow, gay men butching it up for entertainment has always been viewed as somehow irrelevant, as if the level of performance involved in pretending to be straight is nothing compared to pretending to be gay. After all, argue the cynics, have we all not at some point in our lives been closeted and flexing butch-style in fear of social stigma?

Recent months have seen a turn in the gay-straight tide. A number of homosexual actors have followed the trend set by the likes of Portia de Rossi and Cynthia Nixon by coming out of the closet while playing high profile hetero roles. T R Knight of Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris and Jasika Nicole of new show Fringe have all stepped into the pink spotlight. Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman says that “we’ve gone from the revolution to the evolution”. With actors less afraid of coming out, what happens after the event?

‘Going gay’ in entertainment is still seen as the ultimate test of a straight actor’s dedication to thesping. The ultimate test for gay actors now will be if they can acquire ‘straight’ roles post-closet. As the New York Times noted, T R Knight and Neil Patrick Harris “landed the parts before they came out”. Where will it go from here? Watch this space.